If you poke your nose into a small Borders post-industrial town like Hawick you'll invariably find dozens of empty spaces - disused, unloved, waiting for a tenant, undeveloped and in many cases unknown, except to the owner who might sit on such a space for months and even years. At worst some of these black holes in the public space are obstacles. People waste time walking round them every day without bothering to ask what their purpose might be other than to provide future rent for a landlord. At best you get lucky like I did earlier this year.
I’ve taken a six month rent on a zone within a space that I never knew existed if not for a friend who put me on to it. It's enormous, formerly the Lyle and Scott textile mill and more recently the offices of the Council's social work department. The massive floor space has bright natural light and views over the town’s rooftops. In the basement there's a large screen print machine set-up for textile work. The mill is owned by designer and garment-maker Jason Lee who runs Jaggy Nettle, a family business in Lauder. Jason has a generous vision for the space which involves different designers, artists and artisans working on their various projects in the same open space, like a small-scale Bauhaus. It's full of interesting ‘stuff’ which I've been photographing and sonifying for a few weeks now. I've posted a few pictures of my own and you can see more pictures of people modelling their clothes (as well as support the business) on Jaggy Nettle's website.
Textile mills are a steady feature in my work over the years. In past projects I've engaged with mills in Selkirk and Langholm and also with small cottage textile outlets in Estonia. I started out capturing the sounds of textile machinery then became interested in a broader ethnography of technology.
I have a roving brief with respect to much of the stuff lying around meaning, as long as I don’t use, damage or take anything away without asking. I discovered a white cabinet with glass fronted drawers that intrigued me so I had a rummage inside and discovered all sorts of scraps from garment making, forgotten objects, photographs, mementoes and historical documents from the glory days of the mill. From this investigation emerged the notion of a series of photographic still lifes, a resurrection of the things found in the cabinet. I began to consider these objects as evidence - evidence of value, of human industry, work, craft, production, evidence of social value, of things worth keeping, things with agency, things that refused to be thrown away, things kept for later, evidence of memories which tinged everything with a light hue of nostalgia and even sadness.
In among the different bits and pieces I found a bundle of branded polythene bags from another factory with their logo and some trade text. These were big enough and transparent enough to slip in selected objects or groups of objects, like compositions. Acting as forensic evidence bags they immediately afforded context, added significance, to my original idea. I photographed different assemblage/compositions in the space under the most consistent natural light I could find (otherwise I’d be into studio lighting which right now is far above my pay grade).
I did everything in one go which was a trade-off between having some consistency in the lighting, using black foam board to block highlights where necessary, and struggling to frame everything for a decent composition. The only way to do this ‘perfectly’ would have been to create a dark box with lights from the side but the slight variations in natural light between each shot animates the series and I think the story works for the better. The differences bring out nuances of colour, shade, texture and morphology, all consolidated by the artificial sheen of the ‘evidence’ bags.
I shot everything with a Sony A7r3 and a Voigtländer 50mm f2 APO-Lanthar lens which is the closest I can get within my means short of resorting to large format cameras. I then selected, edited and printed a series of ten. You can see them all on this dedicated page but here’s one I like for good measure.
Printing with a good printer has allowed me to appreciate the business of creating a series for possible exhibition. There’s no substitute. It takes time and some experimentation to set up the images and to become familiar with the different papers but it’s worth all the effort. Printing out the pictures also lets you see how the story emerges. Seeing the prints laid out on a table and being able to move them around energised the telling of the story. It helped me immediately eliminate two prints and tighten up the narrative.
So what else do I do in the mill apart from record sounds and take pictures? Hang out with friends, invite them to sketch, think, listen, walk around, read, write, breathe in the light.